Leading strategy execution by senior management has a significant influence on the level of success of a strategy execution effort. Leading strategy execution is a crucial responsibility for senior managers. During the whole strategy process there must be one clear leader who is responsible for the development and execution of the strategy. The strategy execution leader must to be board member, preferably the CEO, especially for strategic implementations. The strategy execution leader serves as problem owner of the strategy implementation. A strategy execution leader is someone who is responsible for ‘owning’ or ‘pulling’ the implementation effort. Leading strategy execution by senior management provides the overall direction for the implementation effort.
8 KEY STRATEGY EXECUTION LEADERSHIP BEHAVIORS
The strategy execution leader functions as a project manager for the implementation effort. She supports the members of the execution team and creates the conditions under which they can perform their implementation tasks. Leading strategy execution involves making sure the execution team has enough resources to execute the strategy successfully and making sure that the right people are in the right place. Appointing competent management is perhaps the most important task of a leader. The leader also pulls the execution by motivating employees. It is important to have one clear leader who leads the implementation effort. Having, for example, two leaders can create uncertainty among organizational members. Successfully leading strategy execution involves the following behaviors.
1. Articulate and communicate an attractive vision. A successful leader inspires managers and employees through the communication of a captivating vision designed to motivate them to achieve ambitious goals. An attractive vision of a possible future of the organization gives guidance to the strategy execution. By creating a vision and communicating that vision to organizational members, leaders give a direction to organizational members. This gives organizational members clarity and security about the implementation. Effective leaders have the ability to inspire confidence and enthusiasm of the new direction. Furthermore, leaders must radiate confidence during the strategy implementation to the rest of the organization. By radiating confidence, management can build the confidence of organizational members who have to implement the strategy.
2. Focus on execution. Leaders must not only be actively involved in strategy formulation but also in strategy execution. Strategy execution is not a responsibility leaders can delegate to subordinates and then sit back waiting for the results to come in. By focusing on execution and following through leaders may contribute to a culture of execution within an organization. It is crucial that the leader is deeply involved in the execution and really understands the strategy and its execution. This requires having in-depth conversation with employees on all levels of the organization about the progress of the strategy, its execution and the operations of the organization. This means not just talking to (middle) managers but front-line employees as well. They are the ones who are involved in day-to-day operations and have contact with customers.
3. Take tough and unpleasant decisions. Many leaders and managers shy away from taking tough and unpleasant decisions. For example, when organizational members are not performing well they may need to be demoted, transferred to another department or even be fired. Such decisions tend to be very difficult for managers. Poorly performing individuals have a very negative impact on an implementation effort and on the performance of other organizational members, as we discuss later on. However, managers are often reluctant to make tough decisions, such as firing organizational members. Even addressing poor performing individuals is often feared by managers.
4. Be steadfast and resolved. Taking decisions and sticking to them is one of the primary tasks of leaders. When leaders have taken decisions leaders they need to be steadfast and resolved. Leaders who want to execute an ambitious and innovative strategy need to be persistent in sticking the course through thick and thin. This of course does not mean sticking to a strategy that is flawed and not producing the desired results. Being steadfast is especially important when faced with resistance to the implementation. During reorganizations in which employees may lose their job or when established power positions are threatened, considerable resistance to change can arise. When faced with such resistance to change, leaders have to be decisive and steadfast in taking decisions. By handling some matters delicately and being steadfast in others, management can gain the support of the organization. When top management shows that it is committed to the strategy and takes decisive action, organizational members may perceive that the changes are fixed and that resistance is futile. This increases their commitment to the strategy. Under such circumstances it is crucial that leaders honestly explain the situation and take decisions that are perceived as fair.
5. Have integrity and take fair decisions. Research has found that organizational members are more committed to decisions, decision-makers and the organization when the procedures that were used to arrive at the decision, are perceived as fair (Brockner et al., 2000). As Brockner et al state: ‘It’s not only what you do, but how you do it’. When a leader is perceived to have integrity and make just decisions, organizational members are more willing to follow that person during the execution and accept difficult measures, such as layoffs, more easily. Being honest and transparent is also in important trait for leaders. Organizational members remember when someone was not honest to them. They will be reluctant to trust that person any further and are less willing to do something for that person in the future. Leaders and managers must use their power in an honest and transparent way that benefits the company and not for personal gain. The degree of honesty of a manager often depends on the skill level of a manager. The more competent and confident a leader is, the more likely that person is open about matters.
6. Attract followers by practicing moral virtues. When leaders exhibit moral virtues such as fairness, integrity, honesty, loyalty, determination, courage and responsibility this increases the willingness of employees to follow them. By practicing these virtues, leaders attract followers with their behavior. When moral trust disappears because subordinates discover that they are being manipulated or treated unjustly, free adhesion will disappear. When doubt about the goodness or truthfulness of a leader arises her credibility diminishes. It becomes unlikely that followers will continue to follow the will of such a leader. Executing a strategy becomes much more difficult when this happens.
7. Serve as an example and role model. Leaders are role models for their organization. Leaders must serve as an example of the behaviors, skills and attitudes that are required by the strategy. This gives organizational members a role model, which they can emulate and look up to. Leaders and managers must give the right example by ‘walking the talk’. When this happens, they are perceived by organizational members to be a credible leader whose example is to be followed. Leaders must lead by example and do what he or she says. The behavior of leaders is crucial to their influence of organizational members. Behaviors have dual consequences – actions both do and say things. One of the best ways to improve the feeling of competence and thus the performance of employees is by observing social models. When persons see similar persons succeed through sustained effort, they may come to the belief that they too possess the capabilities that are required to succeed.
8. Create leaders, not followers. Leadership must not be limited to management but also apply to everyone in the organization. The objective of leadership is to create leaders not followers. Leaders should inspire lower-level organizational members by recognizing that everyone has different and equally important competencies and roles to play. Making people proud about themselves, their work and organization and giving them more control over they way in which they perform their work increases their motivation and work performance. Empowering employees is a crucial task of leaders as it also stimulates innovative behavior which is crucial in current turbulent times.
THE STRATEGY EXECUTION SERIES
This article is based on my PhD research at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University – one of the top business schools in Europe. Research has shown that most strategies fail in the execution phase. The aim of my research was to understand why strategies succeed or fail. This series of articles gives a comprehensive overview of the best practices that contribute to strategy execution success or failure. Collectively, the best practices allow executives and managers to successfully executie their strategy and achieve the goals of their organization.